What is the single most important trait for a leader to have?
Enthusiasm? Courage? Confidence? Wisdom?
While those are great guesses, research indicates integrity - the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles - is the most essential quality needed to be an effective leader.
"So you're saying they should stay out of trouble. Isn't that pretty obvious?"
Clearly, school leaders should make it their goal not to be the focus of a Buzzfeed or Barstool article (education already has too many of those). Rather, we're talking about the need for leaders to be professional, loyal, and reliable at all times.
In the 2002 blockbuster Spider-Man movie, Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) gives the following advice to Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire): “With great power comes great responsibility."
Just like superheroes changing from civilian clothes to super suits, when individuals jump from classroom teacher to school leader suddenly their whole world changes. Not only do they find themselves "in charge" of a massive number of students and staff, new leaders discover their behavior is now on center stage.
Effective school leaders demonstrate high character in a variety of situations. Consider the following:
Listen: The ability to actively listen and empathize with employees is one of the major factors separating great leaders from all others. Leaders with integrity not only make time to listen, they take pride in understanding employee perspectives and concerns.
Follow-Through: Few things erode trust more than lack of follow-through. Reliable leaders are adamant about keeping promises. By developing a system for keeping track of tasks, dependable bosses ensure the commitments made to staff are completed in a timely manner.
Apologize: Asking for forgiveness is one of the most powerful gestures in the human arsenal. Honorable leaders realize when they make mistakes and are willing admit those faults. Humble leaders view missteps as valuable opportunities to strengthen relationships.
Transparency: Education is plagued by school leaders who get a thrill out of not sharing information. Rather than keep details close to the vest, leaders with integrity have no issues sharing vital information and take time to explain the rationale behind decisions.
Address Issues: Noble leaders realize it is their responsibility to deal with the behaviors of underperforming staff. Whereas hypocritical bosses bash employees privately but never remedy the situation, genuine school leaders assume responsibility for addressing sub-standard individuals.
Leaders must model the behaviors and attitudes they expect from their followers. Just as children emulate the behavior of their parents, so do employees when observing the conduct of their bosses.
Given the importance of integrity, it's critical for schools focus on this characteristic when selecting new leaders. Regardless if the open position is superintendent, principal, instructional coach, or department chair, leadership positions must be filled with honest and ethical people.
During candidate interviews, look for individuals who lack excessive ego or concerns about status. Humble leaders are quick to point out the contributions of others and are slow to seek attention for their own. They share credit, emphasize team over self, and define success collectively rather than individually.
However, keep in mind that anyone can turn on the charm for a short period of time. Far too often, people with significant character flaws weasel their way into leadership positions because interview committees fail to look for evidence of behavior patterns.
Even if a candidate impresses in the interview, committees should complete an "integrity audit" before offering the position. Ideas include:
Reference Checks: Assuming the candidate gives permission to contact current and former employers (usually a question during the application process), move beyond candidate-provided names and contact others who could provide firsthand knowledge on behavior.
Social Media: Districts are wise to creep on the social media accounts of leadership candidates. Do you see someone who is modest and grounded or narcissistic and dramatic? Don't be afraid to dig deep and look for questionable posts that could serve as red flags.
Google Search: Beyond stalking (ahem ... looking up) candidates on social media, complete a quick web search and see what you find. Many districts skip this step and then have egg on their face when the community discovers a newly appointed leader was in the news for the wrong reasons.
Communication: Leading up to the interview, dissect the communication style of each candidate. Do they seem friendly and genuine or detached and flakey? Letters of interest, emails, phone calls, and in-person conversations all provide evidence of a candidate's disposition.
Interactions: Interview committees should create scenarios where candidates interact with others in informal situations. Eating lunch with a team of staff or walking the halls with a group of students provides feedback on behavioral tendencies of the individual.
Business tycoon Warren Buffet once said, “In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you.”
School leaders can have all of the enthusiasm, courage, confidence, and wisdom in the world.
But if they don't have strong moral principles, the rest doesn't matter.
Integrity is the foundation of leadership.